Fix S.C. higher ed by getting on board for regents system

Grace Beahm/Staff

The Feb. 15 editorial “Better governance for colleges” is right on target. The unfortunate situation at South Carolina State University reflects much on the school but also on the system of educational governance in this state.

I served as chair of the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education from 2005 to 2008. Prior to that I was the Dean of the MUSC College of Medicine for 11 years.

During these years I watched South Carolina’s colleges and universities make much progress but also squander many opportunities.

Our two-year college system can justifiably be proud of contributing to our state’s economic development and providing affordable higher education to many students. Still we do not have a coordinated system that emphasizes the value to the state rather than benefit to the individual institution.

Unlike many of our sister states we do not coordinate new development taking into consideration “what is best for South Carolina?”

Rather we operate under a philosophy that states, “If you’ve got one I want one.”

That emphasis on individual determination is in some ways admirable. But it does not get the most for our investment in the state’s higher education system.

A state agency with greater centralized authority would be a significant step in the right direction. This is referred to as a “Board of Regents.”

Our Commission on Higher Education could function in that way if it had more authority to guide development of new facilities and programs as well as the distribution of state appropriations for operations of higher education.

Now decisions are made by the individual institution. Universities can “slip in the back door of the Legislature,” wave some football tickets and somehow get what they want.

This method defeats carefully considered statewide development. Agencies similar to our Commission on Higher Education in other states utilize a variety of methods to distribute state funds to support operations for higher education.

We have a similar method in South Carolina; however, the “back door activity” undermines that system.

As we consider higher education in our state we need also to look at the governance of the individual colleges and universities.

The method by which we elect trustees needs to be carefully examined. In most instances trustees are elected by the Legislature. A new candidate goes up to Columbia, stands by the escalator in the Capitol building, smiles and greets the members of the Legislature as they arrive.

Many effective men and women who are business and institutional leaders in our state are unwilling to play this game.

Of course once you are elected it amounts to a lifetime appointment. There is no term of office. Many trustees serve for more than 40 years.

There is a belief by some people that service for many years brings wisdom. We see this in Washington.

I disagree and would strongly recommend a different method to select trustees and the establishment of terms of office. I believe our overall system would be strengthened by these changes.

I am optimistic about the future of our state. We are witnessing much economic development and growth of which we can be proud. A strong system of higher education focusing on the entire state is crucial to our future.

We must ensure a quality and affordable education for our citizens. This needs to be done by careful consideration of how we invest our educational funds to the best interest of our entire state.

A statewide agency with significant authority to plan for the future and direct state investments is a vital step forward in this endeavor.

Layton McCurdy, M.D., is Dean Emeritus of the College of Medicine and Distinguished University Professor at the Medical University of South Carolina.